New book by astronaut who shot first pics of Great Wall of China from Space launched in Prague

Photo: archive of Zdeněk Sklenář Gallery

A new book of stunning photographs from Space by former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao published by the Zdeněk Sklenář Gallery was launched in Prague this week. Chiao’s photos, shot in orbit some 400 kilometres above the Earth, were taken from four separate missions between 1994 and 2005. On the occasion of the book launch, Czech Radio’s Miroslav Krupička asked the astronaut about how the idea for the book, due to also come out in English and Chinese, came together after he and Sklenář met.

Leroy Chiao, photo: Miroslav Krupička
“I think that we first met around 2008 and around that meeting we talked a lot about Space and photographs and I think that the idea for the book came in 2009. He had the idea of publishing some photographs and so I made a small sample of some of the ideas and some of the photos we might use. But then we each had other things so we only returned to the idea fairly recently. Last year we reconnected and he brought up the idea again and this time we sat down and took it more seriously and we got the book done very quickly, less than a year, maybe around six months.”

You had taken some 16,000 photos: the selection process couldn’t have been easy…

“Well, fortunately when I was taking the pictures I took my favourites out and set them aside so that made the final selection process a lot easier, going through some 1,000 photos. We also went back and looked at some of my previous missions where I had shot material in film and I had to ask NASA permission to use their high-res digital files. That took a little while but we did it.”

Did you see the Great Wall of China from Space?

Photo: archive of Zdeněk Sklenář Gallery
“Because of my Chinese heritage I wanted to find out if you could see the wall and determine the answer to that question because I know that there were some Apollo astronauts who had said they could see it. In fact, that has been a continuing myth that that is the only man-made object you can see from Space. When Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national astronaut in 2003, he was also asked when he returned whether he could see the wall and he said he could not.

“So during my mission I knew where there would be the greatest chance of spotting the wall and I took pictures of those areas using a telephoto lens. Later a NASA analyst confirmed that I had shot the first astronaut photo of the wall. But I can’t say that I saw it because although I saw some lines I could not tell you which line was the wall, which line might have been a road or riverbed or something like that. And so I think that it is very difficult to see the Great Wall with the naked eye, especially in mountain areas. If you knew exactly where to look and had perfect weather, you might be able to; but I don’t think anyone has seen it to date.”

Photo: archive of Zdeněk Sklenář Gallery
What do you do now? What is your job now?

“I am involved in a number of different things, I do some teaching at a university in Houston, I do some consulting work, I have a firm which is involved in both the corporate and public spheres, doing keynote speeches, for example, but we also go and talk to school kids to inspire them and encourage them to follow through with their dreams.”